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Tag: joy of reading

my bunker of books

stack o books

it’s dawned on me, as i haul my load of books from nook to nook, that i just might be building myself a bunker of books, a wall of words to crouch down beside, steer clear of bombs and missiles shrieking overhead. all these long and fractured months, the one sure solace, the one oasis is the place i go when i crack a book, haul out a pen (if the book belongs to me and not my kindly library), turn page after page.

i tend to read in stacks, one book begets another. one wise soul points me toward another, and like a sparrow pursuing trail of seed, i follow. hungrily.

the corner of the world into which i’ve staked my flag–of late–is the landscape at the intersection of the sacred and the natural world. it’s a country with permeable borders, ensuring easy entry into neighboring poetry, and down the chute of saints (modern-day sectarian as well as the medieval and monastic kind). the immediate agenda is research for a book i just might write, but really it’s because i could spend all the days of my life catching up on books and minds i missed in my earlier blurrier chapters.

it seems a safe bet, does it not, that the minds that have survived across the ages might be the ones with something wise to say, to remember, to press against my heart. and so i backfill with the classics (john muir and c.s.lewis, and even justice william o. douglas, in the current stack), and move fluidly through the ones hot off the press.

against the backdrop of the daily news, it’s a much quieter terrain. surely, a sacred one. one infused with those rare things, in case of fire, we’d grab and run: shimmering epiphanies, the ones that shimmy open the chambers of our hearts; words so wise we commit them to memory almost as soon as they fall across our lips; poetries that soothe the soul, while simultaneously making us see anew, snapping the whole tableau into finer-grain focus.

it’s the underpinning of my everyday, my subplot to live simply, nearly monastically, amid a world of noise and unceasing distraction. no wonder they call this the age of attention deficit disorder. when’s the last time you sat on a log in the woods, drinking in the symphony of birdsong and silence?

all this to bring me to the latest soulful book i reviewed for my friends in the books section of the chicago tribune. it’s my one excuse for reading that comes with (scant) paycheck. i still pinch myself to think i get to read for work. and every once in a while one of those books takes me to a kingdom i never knew. there seems to be a backlog at the tribune these days, and one of the most glorious books i’ve read in a long while is still sitting on the runway. (here’s a peek into the future: it’s the late great brian doyle’s one long river of song, a collection of take-your-breath-away essays that will leave you gobsmacked at the capacity of the human heart and soul. and if i was allowed to post here before my review runs in the tribune, i surely would. but alas, not allowed…) in the meantime, here’s the review that just posted the other day, a collection of the sermons and speeches of chicago’s very own, rev. jesse l. jackson, sr.

‘Keeping Hope Alive’

By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr, edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Orbis, 256 pages, $25

Jesse Jackson’s sermons, now collected, stir the soul

By BARBARA MAHANY |CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The pages of “Keeping Hope Alive: Sermons and Speeches of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.” are separated into two sections; one for sermons, delivered in churches, and another for speeches, delivered in arenas most aptly tagged “political.” The thing that leaps out most emphatically, though, is that the separation doesn’t matter at all: For Jackson, one of the great orators of the civil rights movement in America and around the world, religion is political, and politics is religion. One without the other is rootless and decidedly dismissible.

Over the last half century, Jackson — the Chicago-based founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, ordained Baptist minister, and twice Democratic presidential candidate — rightly earned his slot as one of the soul-stirringest preachers on the national stage. He proudly occupies his podium at the intersection of religion and politics: He lives and breathes the Gospel as well as the moral imperative to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, reach out to the oppressed, the stranger, the ones unjustly shoved beyond the margins.

As he beautifully writes in his concluding remarks (perhaps the most powerful piece in the collection), “When I traveled I stayed in people’s homes instead of downtown hotels. Coal miners’ homes. Meat cutters’, housing projects, gang bangers’ in LA. And when I was speaking I saw them. My refrain at the time was, ‘I understand.’ I knew who I was talking to — the woman, the coal miner …. And I wasn’t quoting Scripture, I was scripturing.”

jesse jackson book

Indeed, Jackson’s most profound gift seems to be his capacity for not seeing the line between religion and politics. The Jesus found in these pages — a selective sampling of those rare few sermons (six) or speeches (19) actually written down, compiled for the first time and edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, an associate professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion — is a deeply personal Jesus, one Jackson seamlessly translates into one who knows the pain and struggle of whomever Jackson is preaching to. “Jesus was the victim of the most horrific lynching on a tree,” Jackson declared in an Easter sermon at his Rainbow PUSH headquarters in 2003. “The cross was Rome’s electric chair,” he says later in the same sermon, dissolving the line between persecutions ancient and current.

As powerful as each sermon or speech is on its own merit, it’s the sweep of history that most startles and gives weight to nearly every sentence gathered in these pages. Jackson was there, just below the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in April 1968. Jackson was there, in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked out of jail on Robben Island after 27 years locked behind its prison gates.

His is a hard-won, authentically lived moral authority, and now, Jackson writes, “I’m old and I have Parkinson’s, but once I was young. I went to jail with my classmates when I was nineteen, trying to use the public library, and now I’m seventy-seven …. After all these years, what remains for me is God is a source of mystery and wonder. Scripture holds up. The righteous are not forsaken. We’ve come a long way since slavery time. But we’re not finished yet. Running for freedom is a long-distance race.”

Reading Jackson, absorbing the clarity of his moral vision, should be required. It’s fuel for the miles yet to be run. “Keeping Hope Alive” is the place to begin.

Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”

Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

what books are in your bunker?

the cartography of discovery, one page at a time

IMG_2081

i am finding my way, or trying anyway, one page at a time.

the stacks of books are growing at a precipitous, and possibly murderous, rate. it’s not quite as death-defying as the bibliophiles who cowered on the cover of middle june’s new yorker, the brilliant bruce eric kaplan’s “bedtime stories,” which made me laugh out loud (in sorry self-recognition). but it’s growing at a rate that might make ol’ jack and his beanstalk shudder.

certainly propelled by the question of the season — what will you do with your one wild and precious life? — i climb the stairs of this old house, this increasingly arthritic house (the old wood slabs and my old bones now creaking in something akin to unison). i am, more often than not, carrying a small armload of books. i carry them, logs to the pyre, to see what i might kindle from the depths of their pages.

IMG_0265my destination is the nook by the window that’s become my signature perch. my aerie. the crow’s nest for those not tossing on the seas, but merely tossing in the undulations of her own uncharted life.

i am, i suppose, reading my way toward some more certain path. and, more often than not, i find myself inside poetry. i find poems the surest way toward clarity. it’s the way a poem illuminates the barest wisps of the everyday, the quotidian. imbues those moments with the volumes of understanding, or wisdom, i’ve always sensed. poetry puts dimension, puts shadow, light, and a spectrum of color, to the otherwise unnoticed.

and therein i find what i call sacred. the holiness of the every blessed moment. if only we stop to mine the depths, the strata, the igneous rock bed beneath the flimsy shale.

this week, as i squirm inside the borderless plateau that is my newfound station, as i arch this way and that, wondering where my path is hiding, i stumbled onto this most perfect poem, one that almost seemed to be a polaroid of the moment in which i find myself: the work of my lifetime, mothering, now coming to a turn.

but what i love the most about this poem, “things you didn’t put on your résumé,” by the brilliant minnesota poet laureate, joyce sutphen, is that it holds the everyday up to the light. shines incandescence on the otherwise invisible. she says it more pulsingly and achingly than i’ve ever managed to capture it (though i wrote three books trying…..)

so from my corner nook in my window seat, looking out into the linden boughs and the serviceberry where the sparrows romp, here’s the perfect poem for this moment when i am looking back at all that’s been, missing it terribly, and wondering where oh where will i next find the closest thing to holiness in my everyday?IMG_0262

Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé
by Joyce Sutphen

How often you got up in the middle of the night
when one of your children had a bad dream,

and sometimes you woke because you thought
you heard a cry but they were all sleeping,

so you stood in the moonlight just listening
to their breathing, and you didn’t mention

that you were an expert at putting toothpaste
on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle

the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while
you sang the words to songs from Annie, and

who would suspect that you know the fingerings
to the songs in the first four books of the Suzuki

Violin Method and that you can do the voices
of Pooh and Piglet especially well, though

your absolute favorite thing to read out loud is
Bedtime for Frances and that you picked

up your way of reading it from Glynnis Johns,
and it is, now that you think of it, rather impressive

that you read all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy
(and others too many to mention here) to them

before they went to bed and on the way out to
Yellowstone, which is another thing you don’t put

on the résumé: how you took them to the ocean
and the mountains and brought them safely home.

“Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems by Joyce Sutphen, University of Nebraska Press.

simply: what are the things you don’t put on your résumé? 

piles and piles of books…

soulbooksstack

books around here are slip-sliding into puddles. books are piled on bedside tables, and teetering at the edge of my old pine writing desk. books shove me out of chairs. and books sometimes line the stairs. books come into this old house all on their own. and sometimes, because i shlep them. my little book-lined writing room is becoming my book-stacked obstacle course. can you hop the pile? can you slither through the gulch, the one between two (or three or four) gravity-defying stacks?

i came home from the smoky mountains with but one genre of souvenir: books, and more books. books that all week have called me to the wicker chairs out back. books whose stories hold me from one reading interlude to the next. and then, of course, there are the books for work. lots and lots of books for work. some, i discard right away (voodoo dolls and crystal balls on covers). some i wade a few chapters in before gently laying aside. but every month, on assignment, i find three who shimmy to the top. they’re the ones i round up and claim satisfying soulful reads.

before we get to the latest round of tribune-anointed books, here are a few that might be among the best i’ve read in years:

donald hall’s a carnival of losses: notes nearing ninety.

hall, once the poet laureate of this fine nation, died a few weeks back, but not before his last — perhaps best — collection of essays was published. every single one of these is a gem, a specimen worth study. as the impeccable ann patchett puts it: “donald hall writes about love and loss and art and home in a manner so essential and direct it’s as if he’s put the full force of his life on the page. there are very few perfect books, and a carnival of losses is one of them.”

once upon a time, i sat in donald hall’s living room, at his farm in new hampshire. those hours grow more and more radiant across the distance.

eveningland: stories, by michael knight.

michael knight, a southern writer whose native and literary landscape is mobile, alabama, and who has been likened to o. henry and called “the anton chekhov of mobile bay,” is a writer i’d not known before i took a seat in the old hall at sewanee. from the first sentence, i was glued. reading an untitled story about a father and his son (one i had reason to think might be autobiographical) he couldn’t make it through without pausing to brush away and apologize for tears. that’s enough to make me love a writer. and when we bumped into him the next afternoon (along a leafy shaded path en route to the bookstore), he apologized again, though we insisted it made his reading all the more beautiful. his eveningland traces a few characters who weave in and out of stories, across the arc of life. each one is achingly wrought. and unforgettable.

and, here, because i forgot to post it a few weeks ago when it ran, is the latest roundup of books for the soul, as published in the chicago tribune.

“Faith” by Jimmy Carter, Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $25.99

As the early pages of Jimmy Carter’s “Faith: A Journey for All” unspool, it doesn’t take long to get lulled into the front-porch-rocking-chair rhythms and cadences of small-town Southern gentility that is Plains, Ga., circa 1930. It’s easy to forget that you’re not just reading the reflections of a gentleman farmer with his mules and peanut crops, but in fact the remembrances of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president of the United States.

Carter begins this bedrock retracing of a life of faith by recounting, in down-to-earth vernacular, a boyhood steeped in Sunday school and church suppers, in farm work and field play with the African-American farm kids next door. Yet in the next sentence, the 39th American president is reaching for his mainstay philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, then quoting activist, preacher and friend William Sloane Coffin, just as seamlessly as he draws from the writings of theologian and Nazi-resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

But it’s in quoting Carter’s own works — a 1978 speech to his fellow Southern Baptists, for instance — that the former president inspires most unforgettably (and his words, against the backdrop of the summer of 2018, rise up piercingly):

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

Carter’s book is necessary tonic — and prescriptive — for these fraught times.

“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” by Yossi Klein Halevi, Harper, 224 pages, $24.99

The inside flap of the book jacket states that “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is “lyrical and evocative,” claiming it’s “one Israeli’s powerful attempt to reach beyond the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians.” It is that, all that; and for that, there is little argument.

The argument of critics, though, is that the series of 10 letters addressed to an imagined Palestinian, all written by Yossi Klein Halevi — a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative — boils down to a one-sided correspondence.

That’s the pushback from left-leaning rabbis and thinkers who argue that writing to an unknown, unnamed neighbor, with no give and take, no wrestling of ideas and perspectives, is to leave out the essential other voice in a much-needed debate. (Halevi offers the book in Arabic translation for free download and openly invites Palestinian response; he calls this book the sequel to his earlier “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” a search for holiness — and understanding — among Palestinian Muslims and Christians.)

Halevi, an American-born emigre to Israel, writes with a profound and palpable empathy. “We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home,” he laments. His keen observations — deeply human in scale — ache with a longing to reach across “the wall between us,” to make peace, to find a two-state solution.

This epistolary approach evokes a measure of intimacy and illuminates the undeniable complexities of the Israeli history, across the millennia. With one half of the conversation laid out for all to read, the lingering hope is that there comes from Palestine the voice not heard in these pages.

“On the Brink of Everything” by Parker J. Palmer, Berrett-Koehler, 240 pages, $19.95

Parker J. Palmer — writer, speaker, activist, community organizer, and one who claims “Quakerish tendencies” — has long earned the title of trusted spiritual guide. Now 79, he takes on the mantle of cherished elder.

His newest book, “On the Brink of Everything,” might be called a meditation on aging, but it’s more than that. In his first sentence, Palmer writes, “We grow old and die in the same way we’ve lived.” This is in fact a meditation on living, as we move toward “the brink of everything,” the precipice at the far end of our lives, “a window into heaven,” as he puts it.

Through two dozen essays, a dozen poems and three songs (sung by Parker’s great friend, the soulful folk singer Carrie Newcomer and available for free download at NewcomerPalmer.com), Palmer reminds us not only that aging shouldn’t be feared, but rather that it stands to clarify our vision and deepens our capacity for knowing. Quoting one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters in “Player Piano,” he reminds, “out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

Palmer, then, places us squarely on that edge and points us toward all those truths we’d be wise to see — and to make our own.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in April.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

armchairbooks

what are you reading this summer?

one last fling

one last fling

dispatch from 02139 (in which….well, let’s not give away the whole story. not just yet anyway….)

alas, it’s not what you think. not here anyway. i know, i know. the more common usage of that flouncy noun, the “fling,” would be one in which all caution was hurled to the wind, and tumbling would occur.

like i said: not here.

for starters, the tall one is off being mr. professor this week, nowhere to be seen, for days and days on end. and when he trundles home, he’s bleary-eyed. or interested in talking only of the gates of harvard yard. not exactly pillow mumble.

and here, instead of silky sheets a la fling, there’s an afghan. a hand-crocheted one, mind you. and the cozy corner of a couch. and, most of all, a tall stack of pages to be turned.

alas, the fling of which i type is the one that lured me for months. seductive, yes. sexy, hardly. it springs upon that settled-in corner of the futon-couch, looking east toward the atlantic (though obscured by towers tall, a bumper crop sprouted across the hills of cambridge). the one where the lamp glows golden, and where the stack of books only grows and grows.

for the whole first semester, i dreamed of a day when nothing would call my name, nor insist on my appearance, nothing other than the corner of the couch.

and even though we’ve had a full six weeks away from lecture halls and seminar tables, it’s only been the last few days — days when the minus sign was hauled out of storage so thermometers could flash the bitter cold — that i’ve been nestling there where i so longed to be.

it’s taxing, this flinging. it goes like this: first, you shoosh everyone out the door quick as quick can be (so much so that they might wonder if there’s a toxic waste from which they’re being shielded), scrub the breakfast plates, pour the last of the coffee, then dive onto the couch, bottom first. unfurl the afghan, pull it tight around your chin. play eenie-meenie-minie-mo. with all the books. will it be a poet? a memoirist? or yet another poet?

fueled by pots of tea, and polished apples, it goes like this till sundown. all afternoon, i trace the disappearing light, as it trails from living room to dining room to kitchen, before slipping off the planet’s edge, making way for nightfall.

and here’s what i’ve discovered: i’m not so good at making like a lotus, knees akimbo, toes tucked under bum. i get the itches, oh, ’round half past 3. start looking up, thinking about popcorn. wondering if i should start to chop an onion, make like i’m the hausfrau fixing vittles for the clan.

like so many things in life that from afar look glorious, all sparkly on the shelf where we can’t reach, the fact is, once we’ve held them in our hands, we see the bumps and odd spots. a glorious afternoon’s reprieve is most glorious when it’s an interlude amid the madness.

when, instead, it’s the beginning and the end, when there’s no variegation in between, well, it all turns rather blah. even when the pages come in ooohs and ahhs.

and, whaddyaknow, like magic, i’ve come crashing to the end of this dalliance. i’ve only one last round, after this afternoon’s errands are wiped off the slate. and perhaps today, as the clouds come out to play, and the snowflakes start to tumble, i’ll savor that hallelujah romp under the afghan, me & all my books.

come monday, we’re back at it again, with a whole slate of classes filling up my days. i’d toyed with the idea of cutting back, of not carrying quite the load as fall semester. but then, i picked up the course catalog, and on and on, i clicked. carried on like a hungry girl in an ice cream shop, who couldn’t bear to pass up one more scoop.

sad truth is, in a mere four months, the sparkly shoes get kicked behind, the coach returns to pumpkin. this year of thinking sumptuously, it up and poofs! all gone! back to scrubbing chimneypots.

so, come round two of this exercise in fantasy academics, i’ve got my eye on this little roster:

monday mornings, i’ll get to work with noted historian henry louis gates, as i whirl through “intro to african-american studies.” then i’ll straddle two continents as i dive into “english 64 — diffusions: american renaissance and irish revival,” reading dickinson, emerson, hawthorne, melville, thoreau and whitman, alongside joyce, o’casey, synge and yeats. my cymbal crash will be mondays, wednesdays and fridays at noon when the northstar of poetry, helen vendler, waltzes into the lecture hall and barely takes a breath for the next 55 minutes, waxing poems, poets and poetry in a standing-room-only class titled (not so poetically) “aesthetic and interpretive understanding 20.”

on tuesdays, i’m dabbling in trees, forests and global change over at the science center. and washing that down with sacred and secular poetry. wednesdays i repeat monday but add a two-hour block of fairy tales and folklore with the jaw-dropping maria tatar (whose class i am already begging to enter). and so it’ll go, straight on through friday afternoons.

so my old couch will grow lonely. go cold. and i’m guessing, like any love that’s lost, i’ll soon enough hear that old stack of wood and cushion coo my name. it’ll sound sweet, seductive. and some rainy vernal afternoon, i might give in to the temptation, and curl up once again.

but for now, after two unbroken days of sitting and turning pages, i’m thinking a lecture hall, filled with laptops, and kids click-clicking away, that’s my new rendition of an afternoon’s fine fling.

silk sheets not included.

so, if you could pick one unencumbered afternoon to do wholly as you please, what might be on the list? and would you guess that it would ever, could ever, grow old? or have you found a tune that you could hum for a long long while? 

the reading list, in case you’re interested: 

“several short sentences about writing,” by verlyn klinkenborg. (heavenly!)

“on moving: a writer’s meditation on new houses, old haunts and finding home again,” by louise de salvo. (a gift; just diving in. looks quite heavenly.)

“birdology: adventures with a pack of hens, a peck of pigeons, cantankerous crows, fierce falcons, hip hop parrots, baby hummingbirds, and one murderously big living dinosaur,” by sy montgomery. (recommended right here at the table by our no. 1 turtle lover and aquarial expert.)

“good prose: the art of nonfiction,” by tracy kidder and richard todd.

“facts about the moon,” by dorianne laux. (a wild book of poetry.)

“magical journey: an apprenticeship in contentment,” by katrina kenison. (arrived in this week’s mail from a literary editor friend, who remembered that i liked kenison’s earlier works).

“prayers of a young poet: rainer maria rilke,” translated by mark s. burrows. (my beloved landlord and guiding light, in preparation for a rilke retreat next weekend at glastonbury abbey on boston’s south shore.)